Writing Tasks and Classroom Diversity

                                        Writing Tasks and Classroom Diversity


    What kinds of writing tasks do teachers in diverse classrooms assign to engage, inspire, and motivate students?   Culturally and linguistically diverse students may need tasks specifically designed to enhance their learning, yet these writing tasks, for the most part, are applicable to any classroom setting.  Research shows that diverse students benefit from writing activities that are inclusive;  writing activities that build on what they already know, and writing activities that draw out the student.

    In Julie Landsman’s article “When Truth and Joy are at Stake” in White Teacher/Diverse Classrooms (2006) she notes the importance of hearing all the students voices.  She states that “the more we build in time for students to read aloud their own words, their own responses, the more our curriculum becomes inclusive and multicultural” (225).  Having all the students read aloud their writing helps assure students that their participation is important.  Landsman gives the following examples of exercises to get students writing quickly and reading aloud their work.  To prepare students for the compare and contrast essay “have students write quickly for 10 minutes comparing a morning to an evening, a color to a sound, or any other two concepts.  Next have them read aloud what they’ve written, going around the room without comment” (225).  She also suggests that students ”make lists: I’d rather be a —–than a ——. or, I used to be ——, but now I am——.   By having students write automatically, we refuse to let them become blocked.  By listening to them read, we refuse to silence them” (225).  These tasks are quick and easy no pressure tasks, but they also prepare the students for more in-depth assignments such as the compare and contrast essay.

    She also talks about the importance of allowing the use of dialect  “while exposing students to the language they will need to compete in a world of “standard English” (226). She points out that students “flip from Ebonics to street slang to standardized English. . . .  By asking students to translate their work you are putting a name on what they do. . . .  By talking about registers of language, from intimate to formal, students begin to see their own linguistic variety and the way this fits into an organized pattern of understanding” (225).  For tasks she suggests translating “Shakespeare into Ebonics or translating Ebonics from music lyrics into standard English” (225).  Landman points out that these kinds of tasks build on their strengths.

    One other writing task she offers is from a teacher named George Roberts from an inner-city Minneapolis high school. This activity would be great for any high school ELA classroom.  His idea is to let each student  “pick a day to be in charge of typing up lyrics to a song that was meaningful to him or her also writing a paragraph about why this song was important.  Play the song and let the class discuss it, structuring that discussion by throwing a Koosh ball toward the person who brought in the song and letting him of her begin the exchange, passing the Koosh to the next person who wished to talk” (229).  Have the students address the following questions: “What is the tone of the song?  What is the theme?  What about word choice?  What happens in the song” (229)? He suggests using the same rubric when talking about literature.   Activities like this one also builds on the student’s strengths.  The learning here is additive.

    I also looked at an article by several teachers in Breaking the Mold of Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2012).  These teachers suggest that the finding out who our students are is critical.  In assessing the needs of one of their students who was struggling the teachers state:  “We believed his struggles to find success with our writing activities were in part the result of our failure to really recognize who he was” (207).  The project they found most helpful was one involving students taking photographs with a particular theme in mind.  They gave students cameras to take pictures . . . . with the purpose of answering three questions:  “What are the purposes of school?  What helps you to succeed in school?  What gets in the way of your school success” (210).  Then they reviewed the photographs with students in one-on-one and small group settings as part of an “elicitation process” noting that “we transcribed their oral reactions and helped them to edit their reflection on the photos that they felt best answered the project questions” (210).  They stress “ the importance of one-to-one writing conferences, of using visual tools to move past young adults’ negative writer identities, and of explicitly working to make academic task into personal ones” (210).  In conducting their conferences they set up the following outline:  “The first conference focuses on the images the student have taken.  They have students write a paragraph reflection on two or three different images focused on the project questions. . . .   The second conference concentrates on the draft paragraphs having students read aloud their work . . . .  The final conference focuses on the revisions the students have made to their piece of writing and its accompanying image” (212).  Although this task is more involved than any task suggested, it is an opportunity to get to know the student as well as work through the writing process with the student who may be struggling.

      Working with diverse students who may not participate in classroom discussions may require teachers to assign brief writing tasks that they can read aloud without pressure.  Reading writing responses aloud and requiring all students to participate assures that all students are heard.  One of the best ways to get students writing is to have them write on what they know.  If we believe that learning as an additive process, then we build on the knowledge they already possess.  Acknowledging dialect and allowing students to discuss and write on the use of dialect builds on their strengths.  Recognizing our students for who they really are can help us understand their perspective, facilitate discussion, and generate writing.

                                                                                                                 Works Cited


Landsman, Julie and Chance W. Lewis. eds.  White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms:  A Guide to  Building Inclusive Schools,  Promoting High   Expectations, and Eliminating Racism.  Virginia:       Stylus Publishing, 2006.  Print.


Honingfeld, Andrea and Audrey Cohan, eds.  Breaking the Mold of Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.  New York:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.  Print.


Creativity and Art in the ELA Classroom

                                           Creativity and Art in the ELA Classroom


    In researching tasks writing teachers can use to inspire, motivate, and engage students I found creativity and the visual arts to be an important part of today’s classrooms.  Diana W. McDougal in Randi Stones’ Best Practices for High School Classrooms (2002) argues that “matching the Visual Arts Standards with a course structured on the Creative Process is the best way to raise the level of students achievement” (182).  Although written over a decade ago, Diana McDougal’s assertion is being advanced by others.  More recently teachers like Luke Reynolds and Peggy Albers argue for the value of creativity in the classroom each with a different perspective.

    Luke Reynolds’ A Call to Creativity (2012) argues that creativity is one of our most vital needs in the 21st century” (3).  He addresses what every teacher needs to know:  Does creativity positively affect standardized testing?   He also takes a look at  the fear that teachers have about creative teaching:  “What most of us teachers fear is that by using creative lessons and methods in our classroom when the push for standards is on, we will lose sight of requirements, hurt our students by not teaching them the skills that they need for standardized tests, or ultimately get fired” (7).  According to his research creativity enhances learning and meets standards.  His findings rely on the research of other scholars in the field like the work of  Dennis Shirley and Liz MacDonald The Mindful Teacher (2009).

     Reynolds argues we can teach students to how to process creativity.   He believes this happens when we “tie art to life and connect the aesthetic to the practical. . . . through three powerful faculties:  Compassion, imagination, and trust through experience” (45). Rather than creativity just being something we do with students, we “make creativity a way of being and seeing” (45). He also makes the point that authentic teachers must possess these qualities.

    An example of Reynold’s creativity is evident in his view on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  He believes we can challenge students to make personal connections with the theme.  He comments:  “In an activity like this, all kinds of high-level thinking are occurring.  But students’ personal connection to the text, and rewriting of material to reflect their own situations and people they know and love makes Raisin even more powerful for them” (20).   He uses “Mama’s speech to Beneatha after her daughter roars that Walter is no good and that she cannot love him–there is nothing left to love” (65)!  He instructs students to highlight lines that move them and to take notes about people and problems as well as joy in their own lives.  Next he asks students to think about a person in their lives to whom they could make a speech like this and then to write a similar speech to that person.  This kind of writing task requires the student to carefully consider the text and make a connection with their own lives

    Another task I found interesting is his “Socratic Seminar” on Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In.  He gives the students three question that they will discuss in the seminar and includes a list of requirements:  “their ideas about the question; quotations with page numbers suggesting ideas; and other connections, events, or experiences” (68).  He asks the following questions:  “What do you think Maleeka should do about Char and John-John? Agree or disagree with the following statement:  Students should always talk to teachers when they are being bullied or hurt. Why do many people make fun of what is different from them? (68).  Both of these tasks ask students to engage the skills of critical analysis and to make personal connections.

    For a look at a work connecting the visual arts to the ELA classroom Peggy Albers’ Finding the Artist Within (2007) offers instruction and insight .  She provide readers with  a “how to” on the basic skills of creating a visual arts text, as well as how to read and interpret students’ visual texts.  If that seems daunting she assures readers that we have what it takes.  One point Peggy Albers makes clear is that we are all artists, and notes that “the impetus for the creative often wanes. . . .  learners have little experience in art and, overtime, they grow to dislike art as a communicative form largely due to their inability to realistically represent the object they wish to represent.  Yet visual arts are continuously integrated into ELA instruction and, more often than not, tied to the learner’s response to literature” (xiii).  We can recover the “artist within” and teach our students these same basic skills as an important contribution to what literacy means in the 21st century.

    The value of this kind of instruction can not be underestimated.  She states:  “Research studies in the arts indicate that the arts do not just teach students to feel about the world, or engage the affective, but they also teach students to see, notice, and critically interrogate the world, or engage the cognitive” (11).  She notes that the arts teach students to pay attention to subtleties, and involve problem solving and complex thinking.

    Peggy Albers works encourages and reassures the reader.  She thoughtfully notes:  “If you believe that only talented people can make art, your art will never get done. . . . art for me means I am always in a state of becoming an artist. . . .  learning to become an artist means learning to accept yourself . . . ” (15).  Art and writing are both processes that also teach learners more about themselves and help them answer the core question:   “Who Am I?”

    In her section of the book entitled “Arts-Based English Language Arts Lessons” I found her task on abstract art and abstract writing to be a creative integration of art and literature .  She is careful to include the standards that each of her lessons teach.  Her position with this task is that “writers, especially poets, continually push readers to consider abstract concepts through their word choices, their settings, and their characters. . . .  Abstract Art, like abstract writing, does not depict objects in the natural world, but instead displays shapes and colors in ways in which reality is altered or reduced in a way that simplifies reality” (203).  She cites William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and e.e. cummings “[plato told]” as examples of abstract poems.

    The object of this task is for students to create abstract art and to write an abstract piece to accompany it.  She suggests that students study texts of a range of abstract writers “such as Sylvia Plath, Mim Fox, Sandra Cisnernos, Nikki Giovanni, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings as well as artwork by various artists like George Barque, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, William Jackson, Jackson Pollack, Aminah Robinson”(204).  She includes a list of questions to discuss: “What abstract concepts do these artists and authors try to embody in their work?  How do they make the abstract more concrete through images, words, and symbols”(204).  Students chose a concept or idea presented in the works and research how the concept is presented in other disciplines or art forms.  They then write their own poem and create a visual text that represents their chosen concept.   She suggests that teachers display their work and have students reflect on the themes presented.

    Another interesting task is entitled “Language Strategy Lessons Using Colors”. Here she notes that the “recognition and use of symbol and metaphor are complex concepts.  Thinking metaphorically and representing symbolically push students to think from new perspectives and in sophisticated ways” (225).  For this exercise have students name as many colors as they can.  Find out what these words mean to them.  Paint swatches from home improvement stores can also be used.  Have students discuss how the words for the colors evolve depending on the emotion or idea being expressed.  She suggests using Nordine’s Colors (2000). Ask questions about the characters he creates from color, the dialogue, and the meaning he assigns to color.  Have students write a story or a poem in which color plays an important role.  Another suggestion is to have students create their own set of colors and write jingles like Nordine’s.  These can be compiled into a class book.

    Both Luke Reynolds and Peggy Alber offer an exciting overview of why creativity is important in the ELA classroom.  The tasks and lessons they offer are motivating and inspiring.  The challenges allow the ELA teacher to experiment with creativity without losing sight of the importance of meeting standards.

                                                             Works Cited

Albers, Peggy.  Finding the Artist Within:  Creating and Reading Visual Texts in the English

    Language Arts Classroom.  Newark, Delaware:  International Reading Association, 2007.



Reynolds, Luke.  A Call to Creativity:  Writing, Reading, and Inspiring Students in the Age of

    Standardization.  New York, New York:  Teachers College Press, 2012.  Print.


Stone, Randi.  Best Practices for High School Classrooms:  What Award-Winning Secondary

    Teachers Do.  Thousand Oaks, California:  Corwin Press, 2002.   Print.

Creative Writing Worksheet

This is a creative writing prompt worksheet that can help your students to think outside the box when it comes to writing. Creative writing prompts, such as this one, can cause students’ creativity to show through in humor, drama, sorrow, happiness, etc. You can take the worksheet and make it your own by adding different things to the categories to fit what you believe your students will need. Happy writing!

Connect Text – Creative Writing Worksheet

Variety is the Spice of Life!

I interviewed a college student and friend of mine, Courtney Kennedy, who is a Psychology major, in order to gain some insight into what types of writing tasks were most helpful to her in high school. I also asked her about other tasks and teacher techniques that aided in improving her writing and what could be done to make writing more interesting. Courtney, whose favorite subject in high school was Algebra II, said the key to her enjoying writing lessons was that there had to be variety.  Some prompts that her teachers offered were quotes from famous people and these were the prompts she enjoyed most. Her favorite one, she recalls, was a quote that stated “Stop going around saying the world owes you anything. The world owes you nothing, it was here first.” The assignment was to interpret the quote, and I found this interesting because prompts like this can motivate students to produce thought provoking writing by causing them to think about serious topics or ideas.
Another theme in Courtney’s interview is that of a student’s choice in what they write. This obviously will not work all the time (what student would choose to write an eight page research paper), but simple writing prompts such as journals and opinion based responses could open up students to the world of writing. Having the students write about something they care about and asking for their opinions can lead into argumentative papers based on an opinion that must be supported with factual evidence.
When asked about varied prompts for an assignment and whether or not they helped her in her writing her response was “Two different prompts for the same assignment: –Yes, because variety is always helpful, and giving students a choice makes writing easier.” As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” If a student is given only one writing prompt on an exam and they don’t have a firm grasp of the subject matter, they will not do well on the exam. But, if the teacher provides several different prompts, or at least two or three, it provides the student with a better opportunity to show the teacher their knowledge. The moral of the story is: don’t do the same things every day. Students will become easily bored and unenthused with the material. By changing it up, you, the teacher, can interact with your class on a level that not only engages them in the activity, but also challenges their minds and gets them thinking! Here is a powerpoint presentation that has a variety of writing tasks and prompts!

Creative Writing!!!

This blog is going to be slightly different. Instead of giving you a long extend explanation of a writing task I am just going to show you. This is a writing task I used my senior year of high school. In my school one day at the end of the school year the Seniors “rule the school”, during this time I took over one of the English classes. They were about to start studying The Odyssey and I decided to give them a brief rundown of the gods and goddesses. For their final assignment I had them draw their favorite god or goddess. This is the activity I am going to show you…just with a little twist. Please pardon my drawings I am by no means an artist.

Create Your Own Greek God

This project allows your students to create their own work of art all while using creative writing to express their thoughts.

Write to write or to be right?

Students have been preached to over and over about the do’s and don’ts of writing, from what is expected to how to write properly. Students are often exposed to formal writing tasks in a classroom; they are being told what to write about and how to format it. Not only can this become extremely repetitive for students as they move from grade level to grade level but it can limit the students’ ability to think about topics from different angles. It is hard to keep students engaged in the writing process when teachers are proposing the same writing tasks day after day without a change. By allowing students to respond to some form of a personal topic in the format of journals, the students will be more inclined to write because the topic will be a subject they like and have prior knowledge about. Journals can serve as a self-expressive tool that allows students to open up and become personal with their writing.

Journals are a great way to boost morale, and they allow the students to become more enthusiastic about writing. The journals can serve as an outlet for students to be able to bring thoughts to words and write them down on paper. The entries don’t necessarily have to be in one type of format either. They can be displayed as poems, pictures, or even song lyrics. I can see how some teachers may argue “Journals don’t provide structure…” or “students become lazy writers when they use journals” but that doesn’t have to be true. Having journals be a gradable entity will allow students to still have the opportunity to write freely without the response being right or wrong yet give them a reason to write because they will be getting a grade. According to Educationworld.com, they posted about journals saying “One of the best things about daily journal writing is that it can take so many forms. Teachers can use journal writing to meet specific goals, or the purpose can be wide open. Some teachers check journal writing and work on polishing skills; others use journals as the one “uncorrected” form of writing that students produce. Some teachers provide prompts to help students begin their writing. Others leave decisions about the direction and flow of student journals up to the students.”

It is this kind of writing that will help bring the fun back into the writing process. Plus it’s something that can be easily added to a daily routine of the classroom, you can have your students respond to a journal topic every morning for bell work. It doesn’t even have to be a personally topic about them, it can incorporate a topic from a subject covered the previous day or even get them thinking into what today’s lesson will deal with. In the weekly posting by Education World there was a comment about journal writing and the benefit it had in their classroom. Donalee Bowerman teaches at Canajoharie Middle School in New York and said “I have seen major growth in these children!” as she comments on the fact that her journals aren’t necessarily taken for a grade on spelling grammar but still help her class.  Going even one step further you can even throw the journal writing at the end of the day as an exit ticket of sorts. It can be a way for the students to wind down from the lesson’s activities. Some students are more stubborn than others so the journey of making/keeping writing fun will take a little bit more effort on the teacher’s behalf. All in all its about the students and how they feel about writing that will determine the quality of work that they produce. Making writing fun again helps the overall mood of the teaching environment and the mood of students in the classroom.

Below is a link to a pdf with samples of journal entries from students.

Student Journals

And check out http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr144.shtml for additional stories from teachers about journal writing in their classroom and other helpful tips!

Reading is the first step to writing

Yes I know, this page is supposed to show you how to make your students want to write and become a little more excited about their writing. However, the first step to writing is reading. Trying to get a student to write before they read is like trying to get them to write before the learn the alphabet(maybe not as extreme but you get the point). With this statement we come to the struggle of, “What if my kids can’t read?”. When I first heard of the book When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do by Kylene Beers, I thought to myself: “What students in any high school can’t read a book?” After reading further into the book I realized that those kids that “can’t read” can most of the time physically read words on a page, but they pull no meaning from the words and they often have no clue what they have read when they are finished. This book is all about helping students understand and pull meaning from what they are reading. More often than not, student writing is based off of something they have had to read; a newspaper, a book, or an article in a magazine. This book gives teachers several pre-reading, during reading, and post-reading projects to help students, and these projects are often writing projects!

Writing projects don’t always have to be papers and essays, but they can be character boards with full descriptions, KWL(What they KNOW, What they WANT to know, and what they LEARNED) charts that every student is capable of doing, or thought provoking journal questions(click link for powerpoint KWL Charts). One writing tool described in this book is a Character Board(pg 134). This tool helps students to see what they are reading, and it helps them pull evidence from the text to support their opinions. It doesn’t take much to make this a more elaborate writing project. All you have to do is write a full paragraph description of the character of their board. For instance,  if your students are reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck they could create a character board for Lennie. The character board would include symbols and explanations for the symbols such as a rabbit because of his obsession with taking care of the rabbits. Your students are gaining knowledge from the book all while using CCSS for writing. Kylene Beers’ book includes many things you can turn into more intensive and interesting writing assignments for your student. So, pick it up, pick what you find interesting and find what you think your students will enjoy writing about!